North’s schools will not reopen until March at earliest, Ministers confirm

Northern Ireland reports 13 more deaths and 592 new cases as number on ventilators rises

The view from a Covid-19 recovery ward at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh. Northern Ireland has reported 13  more Covid-19 deaths. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The view from a Covid-19 recovery ward at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh. Northern Ireland has reported 13 more Covid-19 deaths. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Schools in Northern Ireland will not reopen until the end of the first week in March at the earliest, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed on Thursday.

Northern Executive Ministers adopted a proposal from Education Minister Peter Weir that instead of reopening in mid-February, as originally scheduled, schools will stay shut until Friday, March 5th, which means they may open on Monday, March 8th.

There will continue to be supervised school learning for vulnerable children and children of frontline workers while special schools will remain open and childcare and childminding will also continue, Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill said at a press conference after the Executive meeting.

While most pupils will continue to be taught remotely, Mr Weir said that “no matter how good the quality of remote learning being provided, the removal of face-to-face learning will have a negative impact on children’s educational experience, with a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups and vulnerable children”.

Mr Weir also indicated that the March 5th date may have to be extended depending on the extent of the incidence of Covid-19. He said: “The aim would be to start face-to-face teaching in early March, but all actions on resumption will be dependent on the wider public health situation.”

The reproduction number, a measure of how many other people a case infects, is now between 0.65 and 0.8, which means the spread of coronavirus was reducing. Up to Wednesday night 199,000 people had been vaccinated against Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

The North’s health department in its daily bulletin on Thursday recorded 13 more coronavirus deaths taking the Northern Ireland death toll to 1,792.

There were 592 new positive cases bringing the total number of cases in the North since the outbreak of the pandemic to 102,410.

In the past seven days there were 89 Covid-19 deaths which compares with 141 deaths in the previous week.

There was a slight decrease in the number of patients receiving coronavirus treatment in Northern Ireland hospitals. Seven days ago 786 were being treated, the figure now is 768. Hospital bed occupancy is at 92 per cent.

Intensive care units, however, remain busy. A week ago, 70 patients were receiving intensive care treatment for Covid, the figure now is 67. A week ago, 58 Covid-19 patients were on ventilators, now the figure has risen to 67.

High-profile funerals

Meanwhile, on Thursday Ms Foster met the chief constable Simon Byrne to discuss what she described as “several high-profile republican funerals which blatantly and deliberately breached Covid regulations”.

These included the high-profile funeral last summer of former IRA prisoner Bobby Storey and the funeral in Derry on Monday of another former IRA prisoner Eamonn “Peggy” McCourt.

How police dealt with such situations had “damaged confidence in the PSNI” and “rebuilding trust will be an up-hill journey”, she said.

“There is now a widespread perception that when it comes to upholding the rule of law, republicans benefit from a soft-touch approach,” added Ms Foster.

The First Minister said: “While everyone else faces the full rigour of law enforcement and rightly so there seems to be a select group who are perceived to be treated differently. This isn’t something we should have to tolerate. The law should apply equally to everyone in our society and the police must be seen to enforce it fairly without hesitation or hindrance.”

Deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill said Sinn Féin was not involved in organising Mr McCourt’s funeral, instead holding an online commemoration. “The PSNI have a job to do. Everyone should follow the public health advice and they should get on with doing their job,” she said.

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